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Oilers' DeFalco earns raves with 'million-dollar arm'
HUNTINGTON BEACH – TJ DeFalco’s youthful ambitions might have been considered implausible to most.
The Huntington Beach volleyball wunderkind grew up fantasizing of fresh-cut fairways and pristine greens on the boondocks courses of his native Missouri.
“I was going to be the greatest golfer ever,” the exuberant 18-year-old said with a grin. “I thought I was going to be the next Tiger Woods because I was so into golf.”
In sports, though, as is in life, one faded vision often births newfound aspiration.
DeFalco’s Pacific Ocean-sized dreams soon transformed from country club conquests to touching the heights of volleyball’s greatest summits following a move to the West Coast.
“I wasn’t on my own with volleyball,” DeFalco said. “It was a passion shared throughout the family.”
Toiling in the Huntington Beach High gymnasium roughly 10 years after moving to Southern California, DeFalco, a Long Beach State-bound senior, has morphed into one of the most heralded high school prospects Orange County has seen.
With his teammates congregating around the 6-foot-4-inch outside hitter, offering rallying handshakes, DeFalco, decked in creamsicle-colored shorts and sunburnt sneakers, gleams with adolescent fervor. It’s the second set of a match against Newport Harbor, and DeFalco’s acumen for attacking the net clearly sets him apart.
Shortly after Huntington Beach completes a sweep of the Sailors, DeFalco is seen horsing around with teammates and a young Oilers fan.
He’s carefree, yet fully aware of what his squad is on the verge of accomplishing.
“The TJ you see today is nothing like the TJ that walked through that door three years ago when he was a sophomore,” said Huntington Beach coach Craig Pazanti. “I commend him for how he’s grown up. He’s just leaps and bounds from where he was when he first came in.”
DeFalco’s finesse and potent power are why the lean and lanky star receives rave reviews from the volleyball community. He has what area coaches refer to as “a tremendous volleyball IQ,” and what Long Beach State assistant coach Tyler Hildebrand calls “a million dollar arm.”
“He just has a perfect arm,” Hildebrand said. “He’s got heat, range and creativity in that arm. He can go sideline to sideline, shoot over the top at different speeds. He’s had an international arm since he was 15.”
DeFalco, equipped with a menacing spike, has twice earned Sunset League Most Valuable Player honors. He was the CIF-SS Division I Player of the Year last season.
“Just from an accomplishment standpoint, I don’t think there’s anybody, not just at this high school, that has done what he’s going to be able to do,” Pazanti said.
DeFalco’s bedroom is an endless array of plaques, trophies and medals. Last summer, he was chosen the NORCECA U-19 Continental Championships’ MVP, guiding Team USA to a first-place finish. He has placed twice in the top 10 at the FIVB Beach Volleyball Youth Olympics, and he trained for a short time with Misty May-Treanor and Keri Walsh prior to the duo winning their third Olympics gold medal in 2012. DeFalco also captured two gold medals while playing for the Huntington Beach Club (HBC) team at the Junior Nationals.
“I’m proud of what I’ve done in such little time, but it’s also all about the teams and how we’ve come together,” said DeFalco, who has traveled to Asia and South America for national competitions. “We’ve had good teams where I’ve gotten accolades and have been able to shine. But I wouldn’t have been able to do that if it was one-on-six.”
While DeFalco’s path is trending upward, his hectic schedule is growing more challenging by the day.
In April, DeFalco’s Olympic desires took flight when he earned a spot on the U.S. National team’s preliminary 25-man roster. DeFalco is the youngest player ever to make the cut, according to Hildebrand.
“Putting someone on that list, especially a young man, is a big decision,” said USA men’s volleyball coach John Speraw. “For him to get there demonstrates how optimistic we are about his long-term potential to impact our program.”
The national team practices five days a week. DeFalco is playing double-duty, working early afternoons with Team USA and joining his Huntington Beach squad in the evening. His work ethic has already made quite an impression on Speraw.
“If you watch him, how he moves on the court, how he’s able to contact the ball, he looks like a guy that has been playing professionally for a number of years,” said Speraw, who also coaches the UCLA men’s team. “There’s something about the aesthetic overall look and the way he plays the game that is very reminiscent of someone who has years of experience beyond his age.”
The national team travels to Detroit in late May for the NORCECA Champions Cup (World Cup qualifier), the same week as the CIF-SS finals. From there, the U.S. club will take part in FIVB World League matches, traveling to Poland, Russia and Iran.
Finalized rosters for the Detroit trip are tentatively scheduled to be released next week. If Huntington Beach advances, as expected, deep into the playoffs, DeFalco might need to make a choice between the two teams.
Huntington Beach is trying to win the CIF-SS Division 1 and Division I Southern Regional titles for the third consecutive year, and the Oilers are closing in on the national record for most consecutive wins, a record held by Salem High of New Hampshire (114 in a row). Huntington Beach (34-0) has won 98 straight matches and will face San Clemente Saturday night in the Division 1 quarterfinals.
“It would be a really hard decision to leave,” DeFalco said. “My coaches and family are just telling me to stay humble and realize what I’ve come from and all the people that have helped me get to where I am.”
DeFalco credits most of his success to his parents’ unwavering support.
Torey and Gina DeFalco witnessed their son’s penchant for volleyball early on and moved the family, including DeFalco’s six siblings, roughly 1,700 miles to northern San Diego County in 2005. DeFalco spent his formative years attending college matches and watching his siblings play in tournaments, dissecting the intricacies of the game.
Hildebrand, a key member of the HBC who has known DeFalco for more than four years, said he has witnessed him transform from an overzealous youth to a star who is often hounded for autographs while attending Long Beach State matches.
“For all the things he’s gone through over the last four years, it hasn’t been the All-American perfect road,” said Hildebrand.
Taking advice from family friends, the DeFalcos traveled back and forth for more than a year from their Fallbrook home to Huntington Beach to compete with the ultra-competitive HBC.
“When we saw he was willing to commit and willing to do his homework in the car, we made the commitment to get him there, build that club and help build that team,” Torey said.
At the end of his freshman year, DeFalco’s parents made the decision to move the family to Huntington Beach. He joined the highly decorated Huntington Beach program as a sophomore after years of being home-schooled.
“It was difficult there for the first month or two,” DeFalco said. “There were times where I struggled and forgot my homework, and it’s still a little bit tough for me.”
As DeFalco adjusted to the public school environment, he excelled on the court.
“He’s always been one of the best kids, but the CIF finals his sophomore year he had 26 kills,” Pazanti said. “That was kind of the ‘ah-ha!’ moment. … I think that was the night he figured out he was going to be the man for this team for the next two seasons.”
DEDICATED TO A DREAM
Still, trying times challenged him. Following his father’s failed business venture, his parents and siblings moved back to Missouri after his sophomore year. During that period, DeFalco lived with friends for roughly three months while his parents got their affairs in order.
“The commitment that they’ve made to me is unreal, and I’ll never be able to make it up to them,” DeFalco said of his parents.
Torey eventually maintained residency with his blossoming son in Huntington Beach prior to DeFalco’s junior year and continued to make frequent trips back to Missouri to visit his wife and kids.
“We’ve always told our kids, just find a love and a passion for something and we’ll support you as best as we can,” said Torey, who recently accepted a job in Orange County which will allow the family to reunite in Huntington Beach. “I’ve got an amazing family and an amazing wife – God bless her. She’s been the anchor and the rock in this thing.”
As the pieces of DeFalco’s dogged dreams continue to take shape, to stay grounded he often references a 2012 ESPN.com article where he was referred to as a volleyball version of LeBron James.
“I just kind of chuckle and say I’m far from it, but I hope to be there one day, to be considered one of the greater players that have come through the game and really soaked up the knowledge that was given,” he said. “When I read something like that, I imagine a thought-bubble coming out of my head that says, ‘Maybe one day. I still have a lot more to learn.’”